By Ken Billett
Saturday, July 22, 2023—Vicki, glanced up from her phone. “Did you know today is the twentieth anniversary of Hurricane Elvis?”
“Wow,” I responded. “Twenty years.” I shook my head in disbelief. We were sitting at our kitchen table, checking our phones, sipping our morning coffee—thankful that we now had power back on after Memphis had been rocked by yet another round of heavy thunderstorms featuring nasty high winds and lots of lightning. “Still a lot of folks without power?” I asked.
“Yes,” Vicki replied. “Several thousands.”
“Crazy.” At that moment, crazy was the only word I could come up with to describe the violent weather over the past five weeks. I also thought about how a storm—yes, a once in a life time storm—but, still, just a storm, may have inadvertently changed the trajectory of my family’s lives, forever.
Time moves on and the years go by. But, every so often, I think about how different our lives might have been if not for that stormy morning of July 22, 2003.
Deep in the Heart of Texas
July 22, 2003—New Braunfels, Texas—I stepped out of our hotel room’s shower, dripping wet, and groped for a towel on the chrome bar above the toilet. In the steam and humidity, I tried to focus my thoughts on my appointment. While not quite running late for that morning’s interview at a college in San Marcos, Texas, located just north of New Braunfels, I didn’t want to push my luck. After living in Memphis for fourteen years, I had forgotten how big and spread-out Texas could be—and how much car and truck traffic was on the roads at any given time.
Everything’s bigger in Texas…and more congested.
We were staying in a Hampton Inn & Suites near New Braunfels’ quaint downtown, yet close to I-35, which runs north-south from Dallas down to San Antonio, and, eventually, to Laredo, Texas. New Braunfels is north of San Antonio, and the I-35 Corridor between San Antonio and Austin is considered one of the most vehicle-choked highway stretches in the country, so I wanted to make sure to give myself enough time for the twenty-mile drive to San Marcos.
At some point, either I opened the bathroom door, or Vicki opened it and peered inside. From the look in her eyes, I could immediately tell something was wrong.
“Ann just called,” she said. When I asked, why? Vicki told me our next-door neighbor called to tell us that a major wind storm caused massive damage in Memphis and the Mid-South—power outages all over the region, huge trees down, and other significant wind damage.
Our Far East Memphis neighborhood was without power and several of our trees were down, or about to come down. One enormous pine had smashed through an entire section of our backyard fence.
Elvis had left the building…in shambles.
Above, Christopher Blank and WKNO revisited Hurricane Elvis on its 10th anniversary, in July of 2013.
This Little Light of Mine
Wednesday, July 19, 2023, around 1:10 p.m., Zoe, our border collie, and I were trying to nap in the downstairs bedroom. During the morning, we drove around, mainly to use my car’s AC to keep cool, surveying last night’s storm damage, while inevitably getting stuck at malfunctioning traffic lights. When I stopped to get breakfast, Zoe (read Life with Zoe), enjoyed a whipped-cream “Pup Cup,” compliments of the Chick-fil-A drive-thru team.
After more than eighteen hours without power, the monotony was as stifling as the heat building up inside our home.
How did people survive summers in the Antebellum South?
Dowsed candles sat in almost every room. Tepid water from the faucet failed to quench my endless thirst. And boredom, pure boredom, ruled the day.
I had a déjà vu moment, not from memories of Hurricane Elvis, but, rather, from mid-July 2022, when a series of power outages — attributed to increased energy use during an equally hot summer — left us in the dark, several times. Alisa, Vicki’s sister, was staying with us temporarily before she moved back to Texas (see Family Ties: The Last Supper). As we sat in the dark, reading our library books in the dim light, we joked about returning to the Victorian era.
Those outages last July were less frequent and shorter in duration—more of an annoyance than a catastrophe.
But that was last year.
MLGW’s Summertime Blues
The severe weather on Tuesday, July 18, 2023, knocked out power for almost 140,000 MLGW customers. That early evening storm was the eighth-worst outage event in Memphis history. By late morning the next day (July 19th), there were still 85,000 MLGW customers without power, during a heat advisory. We lost power right after 6:00 p.m. Tuesday night as the thunderstorms hit our neighborhood. We were without power for almost a day, yet considered ourselves lucky.
From mid-June to late July, thunderstorms wreaked havoc on the Mid-South as utility crews battled to keep up with downed trees and damaged power lines. Throw in Germantown’s contaminated water supply, continuous extreme heat watches and warnings, and this summer just plain sucked.
Summertime blues, indeed.
Elvis Had Left the Buildings . . . Barely Standing
Late July, 2003, Memphis, TN. About a week after Hurricane Elvis struck, I was up on the roof above our kitchen — the first story, of course — sawing off some medium-sized limbs from one of our pecan trees that fell over onto the west side of our house. Fortunately, that tree sort of settled onto the shingled roof and caused no damage.
We had made a bee-line from the outskirts of the Texas Hill Country back to the Mid-South, expecting the worse, but, thankfully, finding our home more-or-less in-tact following the storm. We learned later that Hurricane Elvis was a derecho (pronounced deh-REY-cho) — a wide-spread straight-line wind storm with wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour — essentially a Category 2 hurricane, hence the now infamous moniker.
A couple of weeks later, our kids started back at their elementary school, amidst massive piles of cut-down trees and other storm debris, and, eventually, life returned to normal. Vicki and I made one more trip to New Braunfels to house hunt and to try to make sense of the overcrowded school districts in the area.
Moving back to Texas (see Downtown Memphis: All Grown Up) had lost a little of its luster, and we simply couldn’t justify uprooting everyone and basically starting over from scratch.
A difficult decision, but, in hindsight, the right one.
Now, twenty years later, Memphis is home, and, as I’ve written many times before, our adopted hometown. Whether or not Hurricane Elvis played a role in our staying in the Bluff City is irrelevant. We’re happy here and we’ve grown to love Memphis, warts and all.
Eventually, we’ll see where the road takes us next as Vicki and I move forward through the last third of our lives. Those decisions are still a few years away, so we’ll continue to appreciate everything our adopted hometown has to offer and I’ll continue highlighting the good about Memphis.
And, hopefully, MLGW will keep the lights on.
Sometimes I wonder
What I’m a-gonna do
But there ain’t no cure
For the summertime blues
“Hurricane Elvis: Remembered” is part of Ken’s summertime reflections series titled ‘Summertime Blues,’ based on the 1959 Eddie Cochran song, most notably covered by The Who in the Sixties and later on by Country Music star Alan Jackson.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.